Expat Living: Who Are We, After We’re Done Being An Expatriate?

It was an innocent comment, in an otherwise unremarkable conversation. But it hit me like a bolt of lightning.

Lightning in the desert- metaphor for expat retirement dilemma

There it was… He had uttered the “R” word.

We had been talking about how hard hit previously economically stable DC has been.

I had just told Joe about the latest “sure-thing” contract that had, again, been cancelled.

Which meant, once again I would not be going back to work anytime soon. So frustrating. Waiting as others make, then break my future.

And then he said it…

Well,  if they continue this for a few more years, you’ll be able to collect your retirement and not worry about it.

What was meant to be a consoling comment, seared my brain with its finality.

That’s it? A few more years in limbo then just opt out altogether?

What had I been fighting for these last 9 years? Transitioning to what?  I left a successful expat business because I felt like I needed to be home to get back on the work merry-go-round before I “aged out” of job prospects.  I don’t want to just wait around now while my good work years evaporate.

There exists a very fine line in America, especially in DC, and I’m sure other places as well, between working long enough to attain the right amount of senior level experience and the day when there are so many younger graduates who can eventually learn what you know, at half the salary. A very fine line… a matter of days it seems.

I came back, took an entry level admin job to pay my bills while I studied the culture and learned what was valuable in this opportunistic environment. I used my expat skills and confidence to work back up from half my expat salary to exceeding it by half again.

Lightning storm- metaphor for expat retirement dilemmaAnd then one day, it all stopped… the system crashed.

Refusing to believe I couldn’t find another job, I pressed on.  Within weeks I had 5 job offers at one time. The catch? Each one was “contingent” on winning the government contract award… yet none of them were awarded. Not one.

I was officially on a “sequestration vacation” that quickly became sequestration frustration.

(Sequestration is that mandatory round of across the government budget cuts meant to reign in spending. I can agree with that. It needs to be done. But in all the “will they do it or won’t they,” everybody was paralyzed in the wait. 6 months became a year and still no one knows what the outcome will be.)

The longer we sit, the more rust accumulates.

Expats learn quickly how to make lemonade out of lemons- a skill I am grateful to have. Writing and independent consulting work have kept me busy. But “busy work” is not keeping my mind and spirit occupied.

And then, just like that, Joe uttered the “R” word: … Retirement.

I suddenly realized I had kept my head down for lo these many years in DC, trying to fit in, create value for those I consulted with and to make a new life with Joe, and I had completely forgotten to look out there and plan who I wanted to be after all this Aaaaaagh!

I couldn’t sleep last night, thinking…

About, what next? Who do I want to be? I have more life to live and I’m not ready to “retire”. And then… what if this is it, what if I’m already retired, what do I do with my days?

Expat Retirement: What comes next?  Hippie groupies? photo of hippie musicianAbout, what an expat does, when they finish being an expatriate. Do we become expat groupies? Living vicariously through others’ blogs and Instagrams?

As I lay awake last night thinking, I wondered who are we, after we get done being do-ers of good around the world?

How do we transition into a more simple life without going bonkers? Is it possible to pass the torch to a younger generation without feeling like life is passing by as well?

Tell me how you’ve done it if you’re on the far side of being retired from expat life.

Tell me how you’ve settled your heart, and started a new life. I’m looking for advice and answers. Seriously!

I realize now that what shot through me like lightning was fear. I never realized how much what I do defines who I think I am. I fear losing my identity.

I don’t want to be irrelevant. I’m not one to go volunteer at homeless shelter like my cousin does, as necessary as that work is. Maybe my next life lies in working with young people again- volunteering as a mentor would fill the bill.

And though I can see myself doing that again, when I see it in my mind’s eye, it feels like the tide rolls out but I can’t see it coming back in.  What am I missing?

A timely post from Becky Matchullis, Expat Family Resilience Coach, entitled “Soul Retreat: Living From Your Truth” gave me a lot to think about this morning. It contained this thought that is rolling around in my head now.

“The quality of our outer life is always dependent on the quality of care we give to our soul.”

Until this chapter of my life, I have always shaped circumstances to fit my vision. But now I feel blind. I can’t see a vision of my future. I have always been very task oriented, and now without “tasks” I am adrift. Can you identify with this?

Joe is perfectly content- we travel, sure, but he already has his retirement rooted here, and it feels perfect for him after 35 years in law enforcement, and it gives me great flexibility.

Golf closest to the pin- Is This My Future?

Golf …closest to the pin. Is this my Future?

Yet as we discussed early on, though we love playing golf together, I’m not into 4-5 days of golf each week as he is.

I have to build a new community of friends and find my reason and vision.

I need purpose.

There is still so much to give and I still want to make a difference… just as much as I did 20 years ago (whoa – did I just say that? Can it have started that long ago?)

I know this will work itself out. Just by the passage of days, if I don’t decide, time will.

So, voices of experience, what are your suggestions? Have you been through this?

Where did you turn for advice and how has it turned out so far?

I’m dying to know, yet, I admit I’m also afraid of what I might find!



6 thoughts on “Expat Living: Who Are We, After We’re Done Being An Expatriate?

  1. Hi Jonelle. I don’t have a problem with my retirement. In fact, I don’t know how I ever had time to work. As you know I write articles about the area where I live, which requires quite a bit of research. Then I keep up my foreign languages – French and Italian. I am off to Spain soon to take a Spanish course and I will spend another month in Italy later working on Italian. I know these activities are not world-changing, but I am happy.
    It sounds to me like you are a natural-born teacher. Have you thought about teaching in maybe a junior college or a university? Or why not start your own training school for young people coming to the US to work – like you did in Baku? You could even do online courses so you could have students from all over the world. I think you would be a natural at this.
    Anyway, I’m sure you will find your niche.
    All the best. – Margo


    • Hi Margo- I like the idea about the online training courses a lot. Awhile back I had thought about incorporating online into my strategic communications consulting, but this sounds like it might be even better. It does combine the things I love and would enable me to keep my hand in the international world and use my computer design skills as well. Now you have my mind going… 😉

      As far as your retirement, you sound busier now than you could ever have been working for someone else! It’s good that you are so happy. Is Jeff still working or is he also retired abroad?

      It’s an interesting thing in English, we don’t seem to have a good term to describe people who are more than expats, more than tourists- meaning they don’t plan to come “home” yet are not seeking citizenship abroad, not yet immigrants. How do you two think of yourselves?

      So many questions- fascinating subject!

      Thanks for the input, Margo! I’m off to do some research. (Yea, a “task”!)


      • I’m glad you liked the idea. To me, it sounds like a perfect fit for you.
        As for me, I would describe myself as an American Brit (dual citizenship) who spends lots of time in France. I feel like “home” is wherever I am. 🙂


  2. Hey.
    Yup. “Retirement” seems to have happened to my husband and I without meaning to also. Neither of us are sure how this will all pan out either. But outside employment and income have both evaporated for both of us during this “economic downturn”. Is it retirement or permanent and uncounted unemployment? Each of us were aged out of employment since about age 55. I ain’t dead yet. Women in my family can make it to 100. Not much past the halfway mark and the outside world is done with me. Hmmm…. It’s big.

    I understand not being funded. interviewed for the same county job four years running and it never got funded. I found the half-time job of my dreams in Santa Barabara a year and a half ago. Not funded. I found a full-time endless hours jail job. It was funded for twenty hours a week. I skipped it.

    So I write. My husband’s developing his own software. We both work on family, home and health. We’re two years into this and still feeling our way. My sister (five years ahead of me) advised not to make any big commitments for the first year. But it’s not like anyone is asking.

    That’s the thumbnail of it. Our short “ex-pat” adventure was a part of this process. If we’re not tied to jobs and schools and could live anywhere in the world we want, where would that be? And how long will our money last?

    Thanks for asking.



  3. Pingback: Ex-Pat Living: Forever Expat, Forever Grateful | Life Lessons

  4. Pingback: Expat Living: What Good Is An Identity Crisis If You Can’t Enjoy It? | Life Lessons

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